Bynum's Bum Knee Is Bad News for Lakers
There have been spurts of championship-worthy stretches intermixed with a workmanlike approach, savvy veterans at almost every key position and the game's most heady coach keeping everyone in their proper mental space. But in these Western Conference finals, against these dangerous Phoenix Suns, the defending champions looked primed to move ahead once again in large part because of a frontcourt that no team can match.
As Xs and Os advantages go, it would be the latest tactical reason the Lakers would move on, but yet another masking agent of the Lakers' true being. Sans that overwhelming, indomitable competitive spirit, the Lakers -- the thinking went -- would simply ride their long and talented trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom to their third straight Conference Finals win.
And then Bynum limped off the Lakers practice facility floor Saturday.
The precocious 22-year-old took the candid route after his discouraging session, informing reporters that the small cartilage tear in his right knee was causing problems again after coach Phil Jackson had opted against mentioning what is a disturbing development for his team.
"It's just hard," said Bynum, who has dealt with the injury since last season but had it worsened during Game 6 of the first round against Oklahoma City. "It's getting a little worse, but I'm still able to play through it, so I'm going to keep pushing ahead.
"(The knee is) just keeping more swelling. It's not like the structure, but it's creating more swelling because I'm playing on an injured limb. It's something I'll continue to treat, continue to try to pump the swelling out, milk it and take it from there."
Without a game played yet in this series, the Suns are already coming out ahead. Just as a pivotal Lakers big man is on the decline, they are anticipating the availability of center Robin Lopez.
The 7-footer who hasn't played since March 26 because of a back injury could serve as quite the equalizer in this matchup. And should Phoenix indeed hold its own down low, a series that looked destined to be won by the Lakers because of their big-man superiority may have just become a track meet that is tailor-made for the Suns.
No one else saw it that way in Laker Land, though. Jackson downplayed Bynum's status, while small forward Ron Artest simply highlighted the merits of Bynum in a diminished state. His point was true, though, as Bynum in any form still tilts the tide of this affair.
"He's changing the game," Artest said. "You've got to guard him. Since you've got to guard him around the basket, he's opening it up for everybody, but he doesn't get the credit for opening it up for us. You have to stay on him, and it gives everybody room to get to the basket.
"He really doesn't have to do anything. He doesn't have to score points. If you're a fan, you think he has to score points. But if you're really into the game, really looking at the game, you can see that if Kobe (Bryant) is driving to the basket and you're going to come off Andrew, he's going to get an easy (basket) so you stay on Andrew. We win by 20 points as a team, and that's all that matters. ... You (the media) will get caught up in the numbers, but he doesn't mind just playing basketball to win."
Point guard Derek Fisher agreed that a limited Bynum is better than no Bynum at all.
"If he can gather some rebounds, change some shots, be big around the basket, give a couple good aggressive, physical fouls, (do the) things that protect us basically on the backline, I think he can be more valuable than what the stat sheet can say," Fisher said.
The stat sheet wasn't kind to Bynum in the final two games against Utah in the Western Conference semifinals. Yet sure enough, he said Saturday that the swelling in his knee worsened after Game 2, when he had 17 points and 14 rebounds. In Games 3 and 4, Bynum had a combined six points and 11 rebounds in 45 minutes. Bynum, who said he went through the Lakers' entire practice Saturday, plans on limiting his action in Sunday's session.
"Playing through the injury is definitely affecting (my play), but I think I'm there for my teammates, and that's the biggest thing," Bynum said. "Whatever it is, (whether it's) having to go out there and guard somebody for a couple of plays, help somebody take rests, just being that guy in the rotation is enough to help this team get through.
"The team ... needs as many vital bodies as possible. Anything can happen, and you may fall into a big game ... if they start doubling Kobe even more or doubling Pau. But for me, just being there is big. It's good enough for this team."
Bynum couldn't bring himself to give a positive report in any tongue after practice. He was asked by a Spanish-speaking reporter whether he was still learning the Spanish language, to which he responded, "Yeah, I'm still doing 'Rosetta Stone.' "
The reporter followed up with a Spanish question about the knee, then assisted Bynum when he hesitated with his answer.
"You just say, it's 'bien,'" the man said.
"But it's not," Bynum answered as he limped away. "It's mal."